Dear EarthTalk: Were Japan to close all its nuclear plants following the recent damage and radiation leaks from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, what could its energy mix look like? Would it be able to provide all of its power in other ways?--Richard Miller, New York, NY
Most experts agree that Japan would be hard pressed to close all of its 54 nuclear reactors anytime soon, especially given that these plants provide over a third of the nation's electricity supply and 11 percent of its total energy needs. Japan relies so much on nuclear power because it has so few other domestic sources of energy to draw upon. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Japan is only 16 percent energy self-sufficient, and much of this comes from its now-wounded nuclear power program.
Despite producing only trifling amounts of oil domestically from fields off its west coast, Japan is the third largest oil consumer in the world behind the U.S. and China, as well as the third largest net importer of crude oil. Imported oil accounts for some 45 percent of Japan's energy needs. Besides bringing in a lot of oil, Japan is the world's largest importer of both coal and liquefied natural gas. Against this backdrop of imported fossil fuels, it's no surprise that Japan has embraced nuclear power; worldwide, only the U.S. and France produce more nuclear energy.
Factoring in that it would take decades to ramp up capacity on alternative renewable energy sources--right now hydropower accounts for three percent of Japanese energy usage and other renewable sources like solar and wind only one percent--and that Japan must import just about all its fossil fuels, it becomes obvious that the country will need to rely on nuclear power for some time to come, despite the risks.
"Supplying the same amount of electricity by oil, for example, would increase oil imports by about 62 million metric tons per year, or about 1.25 million barrels per day," says Toufiq...